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Science

Alan Alda Dares Scientists to Explain Colors to 5th Graders

By Ross Brenneman — February 18, 2014 1 min read

Student: “Why is the sky blue?”

Teacher: “I don’t know, light or something. Ask Siri.”

If you’re afraid of having that exchange in a classroom, then here’s the contest for you: Over the last three years, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, founded at Stony Brook University, in N.Y., by the namesake actor, has run an annual contest to challenge scientists to explain a hard concept to 11-year-olds. This year, the center selected “What is color?” as its question.

The contest started two years ago when the center asked scientists to explain fire, and thus acquired the moniker “The Flame Challenge.”

Here’s Alan Alda, explaining this year’s question.



Fifth and 6th grade teachers can sign their classes up to be judges for the contest. Last year, over 20,000 students participated in the judging. Winners will be honored at the World Science Festival, to take place in New York City this June. If you think this contest sounds like a walk in the green park, here’s the winning entry from the first contest.

In an interview with Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick, Alda explains that the impetus for the challenge wasn’t to make children more knowledgeable, but to make scientists explain their work better in a way that the average person or interested student can understand, although the purpose has since evolved.

If you’ve ever read a scientific study, then you’ll understand why the Flame Challenge makes sense. Here’s an excerpt, for example, from a recent study on the effects of “blue light” at night:

“fMRI further showed that, during an auditory working memory task, less than a minute of blue light triggered the recruitment of supplemental prefrontal and thalamic* brain regions involved in alertness and cognition regulation as well as key areas of the default mode network.”

If that made no sense to you, then you can read Sarah D. Sparks’ story on what that actually means: Watching TV before bed hurts your sleep.

You can learn more about the Flame Challenge here, including how to get your classroom involved. I’m sure the contest will prove ... enlightening.

*My spell check doesn’t even recognize “thalamic” as a word.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.